Exclusive: Ex-Russian military bomber engineer seeks asylum at U.S. border, offers military secrets

Government officials told Yahoo News that the man was deemed credible and potentially of interest to the U.S.

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A gap in the U.S.-Mexico border wall is illuminated at night, Yuma, Ariz.
A gap in the U.S.-Mexico border wall is illuminated at night, Yuma, Ariz. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

A Russian military bomber engineer drove up to the U.S. Southwest border in late December, asking for asylum and offering to reveal some of Russia’s most closely guarded military secrets, according to an unclassified Customs and Border Protection report obtained by Yahoo News.

The man and his family arrived in an armored SUV and asked to be admitted into the U.S. because he feared persecution for participating in anti-Putin protests in support of Alexei Navalny, an imprisoned Russian dissident. He then told CBP officials that he had information wanted by the U.S. government.

He said he was a civil engineer and that “his past employment had included working ... from 2018 to 2021 in the making of a particular type of military airplane at the Tupolev aircraft production facility in the city of Kazan in west-central Russia,” according to a Jan. 11 unclassified CBP report obtained by Yahoo News.

“He described the aircraft type as ‘an attack jet’ and said it ‘was called White Swan-TU160, the largest military aircraft.’”

Protesters in Düsseldorf, Germany, rally to support Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny, April 21, 2021
Protesters in Düsseldorf, Germany, rally to support Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny, April 21, 2021. (Ying Tang/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The CBP report is a daily roundup of items compiled by the agency’s National Border Security Intelligence Watch and is produced to highlight emerging trends or notable events for leadership. The agency added a comment in bold italics after the paragraph detailing the engineer’s arrival and employment and explaining why his information could be valuable.

“The TU-160 White Swan, also known by the NATO reporting name ‘Blackjack,’ is reportedly the most advanced strategic bomber in the Russian inventory and has been also used in a tactical airstrike role in the Ukraine war. According to open-source reporting, a major new construction program of an improved version of the aircraft as well as an upgrade program of existing aircraft got underway at the Tupolev facility during the past few years,” according to the unclassified “CBP Indications and Warnings Daily.”

CBP declined to answer Yahoo News’ questions or otherwise comment, citing agency policy “to neither confirm nor speak to potentially improperly disclosed internal documents marked as law enforcement sensitive or for official use only.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents
Customs and Border Protection agents at a processing facility in Brownsville, Texas. (Eric Gay/Reuters)

Russian military expert Michael Kofman said he had no independent knowledge of this Russian engineer but spoke generally about the kind of information someone in his position could provide.

“An individual working at a defense industrial facility such as Tuplov could have access to a range of information on defense industrial production, specifications related to the Tu-160 bomber and its more recently developed modernized variant, various production processes, dependencies and where their limitations lie,” said Kofman, director of the Russia studies program at the Center for Naval Analyses.

“Someone in such a position could accumulate knowledge by virtue of the types of information they’re exposed to on the job, some of which could prove valuable,” he told Yahoo News.

As the U.S. continues to lobby allies to send military equipment to Ukraine, details about this particular fighter jet, which underwent reproduction and upgrades during the time of the engineer’s stated employment, would constitute valuable information, said a senior military intelligence official.

“Would a site manager know if they modified the remodeled bombers to shoot hypersonic missiles? He might. And that would be a really big deal, if the White Swan was retrofitted to fire hypersonic missiles. They are fast and launched from much farther away,” the official explained. “We don’t have anything that can defend against hypersonic missiles — meaning, Patriot systems and all the rest of what we are supplying Ukraine, it’s useless.”

A Russian Tupolev Tu-160 jet bomber
A Russian Tupolev Tu-160 jet bomber in flight. (Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The man’s name and details of his arrival in the U.S. were included in an unclassified daily roundup of items of interest from around the country and the world. It is highly unusual and possibly unprecedented for this particular report to include the full name and detailed information of an asylum seeker, let alone of someone offering up military secrets of a foreign adversary that hunts down and poisons, launches from windows or otherwise kills its defectors.

Yahoo News is withholding his name and details of where he arrived and applied for asylum after several officials raised concerns about the man’s safety.

Everyone Yahoo News spoke to said they were surprised the man’s identity and detailed work history was included in an unclassified CBP report. There were several classified briefings around the time the CBP report was circulated that appear to have included information on this same man, according to three U.S. government officials to whom Yahoo News read the CBP report. The officials would not provide any additional details, citing the highly classified nature of foreign military defectors.

When someone shows up at a U.S. port of entry asking for admission and claiming to have information of interest to the United States, CBP and the Department of Homeland Security are tasked with verifying the information provided. If the information is confirmed as true and the person is deemed credible, they are then passed off to the FBI.

“The deal with a walk-in is his ID has to be verified and his story checked as well — that could take some time,” explained one U.S. intelligence official.

An FBI agent
Getty Images

“If and only if he checks out, meaning he is who he says he is and worked where he said he did, if that were to happen, then the FBI would take over and whisk him away to probably a safe house where he’d be questioned.”

For about a week and a half, CBP and the DHS worked to verify the man’s identity and former place of employment. By around Jan. 11 he was deemed credible and of potential interest to the U.S., and was passed to the FBI for further questioning, according to two government officials.

The DHS and the Department of Defense did not respond to Yahoo News’ requests for comment. The FBI also declined to comment.

The engineer is believed to be inside the U.S. and is still being questioned by U.S. officials. He is likely being questioned about the restart of the Blackjack production, and the revamped or upgraded versions believed to have been worked on during the time of the Russian engineer’s employment."

He is also likely being asked about matters unrelated to the bomber jet, which could include everything from the email system, software, staffing and manufacturer used by the aircraft production facility — information that could be used to carry out targeted cyberattacks or for intelligence gathering or other efforts.

“We of course know the Russian bomber well. But specs, the real specs, nuclear capabilities — there are certainly things we would be interested in hearing about, if this guy is credible. The big thing is: Did they retrofit it for hypersonic missiles?” a military official explained to Yahoo News.

Espionage photo-illustration
Getty Images

“I’m not saying he does [know the answer] and I’m not saying he doesn’t. I’m not even saying we know if he does or does not have that information. I’m just saying if he had anything that speaks to that, that would be significant.”

Retired CIA senior clandestine services officer Daniel Hoffman said that he didn’t think this Russian engineer’s case was anything out of the ordinary.

“The guy’s here so he’ll be processed, he’ll go through our system and they’ll talk to him and hear about what he used to do and that’s it, it’s pretty simple,” Hoffman said.

“You know, you'll talk to the guy about where he used to work and see what his access was and if there’s anything valuable. Maybe we have that information, maybe we don’t, I don’t know. There’s nothing more that he’s going to do for you, it’s all historical,” Hoffman told Yahoo News. “This kind of thing happens all the time.”